We all want to “know.” To know the answer. To know what’s happening, next. To know who we are. To know our purpose. To know how to…XYZ.
Confession: I, too, have invested much of my life into “knowing.” As part of the quest to know, I was one of those people: Degrees, awards, certificates and certifications. Internships. Volunteer positions. Committees. Workshops. Books.
The quest to know, when it turns into a quest to nail down life into a series of guarantees and absolutes, is one that is exhausting. At the same time, everyone I’ve met who undergoes that quest, pretty much has to travel the same road: the road of trying to nail it down, arrive at solutions, create a world rigidly fixed with safety…before figuring out that that just isn’t possible.
I don’t remember what prompted it, but I still remember how dizzy with terror I was in the moment when I clearly understood that there was no workshop, book, teacher, leader, or path that would save me. Prior to this, I’d finally understood that the degrees and certifications, much as they can grease the wheels and open a few doors superficially, did absolutely nothing for me in terms of my inner landscape or my personal happiness–but the realization that even the self-help work was part of my quest to have some kind of certainty and that on a fundamental level it didn’t exist, stunned me.
But here’s what happened, next, the gradual unfolding of the next several years:
I have become a better listener, because I’m less likely to think I “know” what someone is going to say, next. Especially when I’m trying to work out a conflict, there’s a gentle voice that sites beside me that says, “Breathe. Just listen. You’re okay.”
I’m less defended, especially in those moments. Practicing being less defended, I see more clearly that there’s nothing I’ve really needed to defend. No one is ever trying to tear me down; they are trying to express themselves in whatever way they know how.
My coaching practice took off sometime after this. I stopped seeing client work as “The client and I are trying to arrive at answers” and instead started to see the work as “The client is undergoing an exploration, and it’s the privilege of a lifetime to be beside her as she does that.” I came to see that my basic skill-set as a coach was not to help someone find the answers they were seeking, but to be a vehicle for asking deeper questions, challenging assumptions, and facing fear/practicing courage.
(P.S. I also found that, paradoxically, the clients who were rigidly attached to answers typically didn’t find them; the clients who were interested in curiosity and exploration without attachment tended to arrive at landing spaces in their lives that, for all intents and purposes, we might describe as “answers” of sorts).
When people do unkind things that make absolutely no fucking sense to me (not to put too fine a point on it), my default reaction is still usually judgment and a sense of taking things personally, but that response dissipates more quickly than it used to. It has become easier to understand that I just cannot know what’s up for someone, not really-really-really. My favorite quote, which is appended to all of my emails: “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears as bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.” –Miller Williams
Finally, I’ve started to see needing to know or “needing to figure it out” is a huge sign that fear is at work. When fear is at work, that’s my sign that courage is called for. When courage is called for, that’s my sign that love is called for.
And love? I used to think I “knew” what love always looked like–that it was endless loyalty to a relationship, dropping everything when someone needed something, or swallowing my feelings or needs so that a connection could be preserved. Love meant contact.
Now I understand that sometimes, love looks like releasing a relationship, honoring boundaries, or speaking into a truth that all past experience indicates the other person might have a hard time hearing, and letting them choose their response to whatever it is that I say.
The form love takes shape shifts, but at its core there’s always a fundamental energy of dancing with some kind of mystery, something that says, “You know, you don’t actually know how this will turn out, but let’s choose whatever is peace in this moment.”
“Knowing” can have its good points–it can feel comfortable, and comfort is not an inherently bad thing. But as Pema Chodron says, “Comfort orientation murders the spirit.” When it’s the fundamental place we operate from, or what we’re always striving to maintain, something vital and alive in us dies.
At the core of it all, there’s pure pleasure in not knowing, not needing to know, not needing to figure it all out. If you go deeply within and ask yourself what it might feel like to not need to know or find an answer, chances are very good that the word “relief” will rise to the surface.
When you don’t need to know, you release the tension and what’s left is the relief: the relief that you are good and whole, and that whatever suffering arises in your life, you haven’t brought it on yourself because you’re a wretched human being who needs to lash the whip harder to “know” how to “fix” it.
You are good. You are wanted. You are needed. You matter. None of these basic truths about your existence require knowing. What a relief. What pure pleasure.